David L. Starling, 73Written by Marybeth Luczak, Executive Editor
David L. Starling, former President and CEO of Kansas City Southern (KCS; 2010-16) who called railroading “not just a job, but a way of life,” died Feb. 26, 2023. He was 73.
“On behalf of the entire Kansas City Southern family, we feel shock and profound sadness for the sudden loss of our former leader and friend, Dave Starling,” said Patrick J. Ottensmeyer, who took over KCS leadership upon Starling’s retirement in 2016. “Dave was such a great, yet humble and understated leader, who deserves so much credit for the remarkable integration and growth of the KCS U.S.-Mexico network.”
Starling, Railway Age’s 2012 Railroader of the Year, served on the KCS Board until May 2017, and held the position of voting trustee since Dec. 14, 2021, when Canadian Pacific (CP) closed on its acquisition of KCS, whose shares were placed into a voting trust. According to KCS, the voting trust remains in effect until the Surface Transportation Board (STB) issues its decision on the companies’ joint railroad control application. A decision is expected early next month. CP said on Feb. 27 that it will shortly pursue the appointment of a replacement voting trustee.
Starling was a 40-plus-year railroad industry veteran. He got his start in 1971 with the St. Louis-San Francisco Railroad (the Frisco), and over the next 14 years held various rail operations roles at the Frisco and later at Burlington Northern (BN), when the Frisco merged into BN.
In 1988, Starling joined American President Lines (APL) as Managing Director of stack train operations for the Chicago region and later the Southern region. From 1993 to 1994, he was Managing Director of the Philippines for APL, where he was responsible for all regional functions including financial, legal and governmental relations. He became APL’s Managing Director for the Hong Kong/South China region in 1995, and later served as Vice President for Central Asia, responsible for China, Taiwan and Hong Kong.
Starling relocated to Panama in 1999, and was named President and Director General of Panama Canal Railway Company, overseeing the reconstruction of the railroad and its subsequent operation. He signed on with KCS in July 2008, becoming President and Chief Operating officer. In May 2010, he was elected to the KCS Board of Directors and in August 2010, he was appointed President and CEO.
When Railway Age named Starling 49th Railroader of the Year in January 2012, Editor-in-Chief William C. Vantuono wrote: “When you talk with Kansas City Southern President and CEO David L. Starling about how KCS, the smallest Class I in mileage, has extended its reach and developed new frontiers, you quickly find out that ‘making the right connections’ has a whole new meaning. How would you like to have mentors like Lou Menk, Dick Grayson, John Lanigan Sr., Hunter Harrison, and Mike Haverty? They are all rail industry icons, and three—Menk, Harrison, and Haverty—are part of Railway Age’s hall of fame, the Railroader of the Year. They are among the people who helped shape the career of our 2012 Railroader of the Year.
“Dave Starling follows in the footsteps of Mike Haverty, our 2001 Railroader of the Year. Haverty and KCS in the mid-1990s won the concession to privatize and operate the prime trunk line of Ferrocarilles Nacionales de Mexico, the main line linking the U.S. border at Laredo, Tex., with Mexico City. Combined with KCS’s U.S. operations and strategic alliances with other Class I carriers, Haverty envisioned what he called the ‘NAFTA Railway,’ a north-south main line rich with cross-border intermodal traffic and manufactured parts and products. Today, under Starling’s leadership, Haverty’s vision is coming to fruition. There has been rapid growth in U.S.-Mexico cross-border intermodal traffic. As of late 2011, volumes and revenue were up an astounding 55% and 71%, respectively.
“The growth of what KCS calls the International Intermodal Corridor is one of several major accomplishments that that have taken place under Starling’s watch. In 2011, KCS achieved record carloadings and revenues. Revenues in last year’s third quarter were 24% higher than in 2010, exceeding pre-recession levels. The railroad has been able to absorb additional volume with a stable workforce—a key indicator of productivity. Capital spending in 2011 amounted to 23% of revenues. KCS is clearly in a growth mode.
“Starling is also leading development of the next major Pacific coast port—Lazaro Cárdenas, Mexico, which is now the fastest-growing major container port in North America. Volume and revenue at the port are up 31% and 35%, respectively.
“KCS stock recently reached a 52-week high. One leading investment analyst told clients: ‘The railroad industry has been one of the best-performing industries of the market, with an 11% one-year gain, despite the fact that the transportation sector is one of the most underperforming sectors within the market. One of the best stocks within the railroad industry is Kansas City Southern, which is trading at all-time highs after record earnings, and a 40% gain since August 19 (2011). …’
“KCS continues to be a remarkable success story, and Dave Starling is the man who leads the team that’s making it happen.”
At the Railroader of the Year awards ceremony in March 2012, Starling called the railroading profession “not just a job, but a way of life,” telling the railroaders in attendance that “without the support of our wives, none of us would have been successful.”
He pointed out that there were many “[d]oubters as to whether KCS would survive surrounded by a land of giants. As the rest of the industry consolidated, KCS got even smaller—many would say to the point of irrelevance. Certainly, there were doubters as to whether KCS would ever get full control of the Mexican rail concession. Doubters as to whether we could ever put the two rail systems together. Well, the fact that I’m giving this speech tonight is pretty good evidence that the doubters were wrong.”
“KCS’ strategic positioning as a North American carrier connecting the industrial heartland of Mexico to the industrial heartland of the U.S. with connections to every Class I carrier gives us a wonderful opportunity to grow our franchise in the future and create even better shipping options for North American shippers,” he said in 2012. “In order to be able to continue to reinvest in our railroads to support the American economy, our industry must be able to generate acceptable returns on this investment, and that means being able to price to the market. There are protections already in place for shippers who feel that their rates may be excessive when not balanced by competitive alternatives, and the Surface Transportation Board has shown it will take action in such cases. However, this is not the time to go back to the pre-Staggers era of regulated rate-making or government micro-management of industry practices. Instead, the Board should work within the existing regulatory structure to see where improvements might be made to make the rate case process less costly and more accessible and to correct only abusive railroad practices.”
Starling also looked ahead to the next-generation railroader, saying that attracting and retaining talent “will require new thinking by management. The next generation of leaders will need to understand both the skill sets necessary for success and be prepared to appropriately invest in the training and technology to meet those needs while at the same time understanding and respecting the work-life balance issues dictated by a changing demographic in their labor force. The next generation of rail industry leadership will need to embrace new operating advancements, evolutions, and implement keys to productivity and growth. Our rail suppliers and service providers will be key partners in achieving these objectives. Increasing equipment utilization with a more efficient fuel burn and just-in-time capacity expansion will be key to accommodating future growth. Technology, skilled employee training and performance, and working with our suppliers and service providers will be central to avoiding network congestion and inefficiency for the next generation of railroaders.”
“I’d like to leave you with five fundamental things that I would like to see the next generation of industry leadership focus on,” Starling concluded. They were:
“First, remember the lessons of history and protect the extremely successful and balanced regulatory environment we enjoy today; yet be willing to work with our shippers and the regulators to improve the process for rate cases and to ensure that shippers have a fair, accessible, and efficient forum by which their concerns can be heard.
“Second, continue to foster the current rail renaissance by re-investing in our infrastructure, equipment, and human resources so the rail industry can keep North America competitive and create new jobs for our people in the global economy.
“Third, be prepared to go out and recruit the next generation of railroaders from a pool of young people who will need a strong work ethic and then make the investments in training and knowledge transfer that will allow them to be successful. And be prepared to adapt your management style to meet the needs of a new demographic in your workforce, characterized by technological sophistication, greater diversity and different expectations regarding work-life balance.
“Fourth, find ways to work together within the existing regulatory and economic framework.
“Fifth, make sure we never forget, and never let the American public forget, the indispensable importance of the rail industry to the North American economy and the need to keep this industry healthy and able to grow. It is the most efficient, environmentally responsible and privately financed way to move goods we need for everyday life and we can never forget its importance to our national competitiveness.”
Starling leaves behind wife, Candace, and sons, Zach and Jeff.
Patrick Ottensmeyer on Feb. 27, 2023, said Starling “had the vision and discipline to invest in this unique cross-border network, through difficult economic conditions, advancing KCS to world class status in terms of our physical infrastructure. Perhaps even more important, Dave was a tremendous mentor to me, and so many others at KCS. His leadership style is a foundation of the culture at KCS to this day.” Ottensmeyer extended “heartfelt sympathies” to Starling’s immediate family on his and the entire KCS community’s behalf.
“We were greatly saddened to learn of the loss of David Starling,” said CP President and CEO Keith Creel on Feb 27. “Our thoughts and prayers are with Mr. Starling’s family, loved ones and friends at this difficult time.”
Ottensmeyer and Creel were named Co-Railroaders of the Year in 2022.
Greenbrier: Starling Was a ‘Railroader‘s Railroader‘
The Greenbrier Companies, Inc. on Feb. 27 released the following statement on Starling’s passing. Starling had served on the company‘s Board of Directors since 2017.
“The Greenbrier Companies, Inc. today remembers Board member David L. Starling, who passed away at the age of 73. The Company extends its condolences to his family, particularly his wife Candace and his two sons, Zach and Jeff, all great supporters of his many endeavors, including his years of service to Greenbrier. He is remembered as a dear friend, admired colleague, and devoted husband and father.
”Starling served on Greenbrier’s Board since 2017. Last month, Starling was reelected to a three-year term on Greenbrier’s Board of Directors, with more than 98% of shareholder support. As a Greenbrier Board member, Starling helped guide the company during its acquisition of the American Railcar Industries (ARI) manufacturing business, and later, would play a key role in advising Greenbrier’s response to the impacts wrought by COVID-19.
”Most profoundly, Greenbrier benefitted from Starling’s decades of experience as a railroader. He joined Greenbrier’s Board after serving on the Board of Kansas City Southern (KCS) for nearly seven years. From 2010-2016, Starling also served as President and CEO at KCS. In 2012, Starling received Railway Age’s prestigious Railroader of the Year award.
”‘For more than 40 years, Dave Starling was a railroader’s railroader and a well-respected leader in the rail industry. Dave brought Greenbrier’s Board deep industry experience from executive roles in the transportation business on multiple continents. He was a champion of railroading, particularly in Mexico and Latin America. Dave assisted Greenbrier as we engaged with U.S., Canadian and Mexican policymakers during the negotiations that led to the USMCA in 2020. We deeply appreciate Dave’s numerous contributions to Greenbrier, especially his warm friendship, and offer our deepest condolences to Candace and his family,’ said Board Chair Admiral Thomas B. Fargo (USN Retired).”
Watco Remembers Starling
Transportation and supply services company Watco on Feb. 28 issued the following statement on the passing of Starling, who had served on Watco’s Board of Directors since December 2018 and was an active member at the time of his death:
“I valued Dave’s perspective and guidance over the last several years, as he played a very valuable role on our board,” said Watco CEO Dan Smith. “His incredible railroad career began in the early ‘70s, and his contributions to our Board have been immeasurable. All of us at Watco are thinking of Dave’s family.”
“I have known Dave for decades,” said Rick Webb, Watco Executive Chairman. “I had tremendous respect for him. His incredible knowledge was unmatched in our industry. I valued our relationship and am saddened by his sudden passing. His wife, Candace, and sons Zach and Jeff and the rest of his family are in our thoughts and prayers.”